July 22, 2007 - During last week's E3 conference, we found ourselves waiting in a hotel hallway to gain entrance to the Call of Duty 4 E3 demo suite. Standing next to us was a man that obviously had military experience - with arms the width of small tree trunks, biceps the size of babies and a swagger that would make John Wayne look girly, we knew this mountain of military expertise had to be the COD4 military adviser. The fact that it said so on his T-shirt was a bit of a giveaway as well. After bribing him with a beer by the pool, retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Hank Keirsey, of the 82nd Airborne Division, had a candid chat with us about what it was like to point COD4 in the right direction.
Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Hank Keirsey, one tough sonuva...
IGN AU: What is your role on Call of Duty 4?
LTC retired Hank Keirsey: I'm the military adviser. I was contacted early on when they developed the first Call of Duty game, and I've been with them through all the different iterations. It's been a good association. I gotta give credit to the developers, they do an amazing amount of research.
I can recall sitting with them when they were developing the Russian light machinegun, and they were drawing the animation. They'd have five books opened up, studying each one, and I'd walk in the room. They'd say "I think I've just about got it right for this Russian light machinegun, but which way does the can turn?" They can't tell that from the pictures, so they ask me that. Of course, I don't know, so I had to go look it up!
Then you go into a room with them, and they'd say "How does this look", and show you something. I'd say "Well, no soldier would ever run out in front of a tank in that strange pattern you've got him crossing the street. They'd all be hugging the corner, or be right behind the tank, because that tank is a great way to stop bullets. They wouldn't be randomly running across the street - your artificial intelligence needs to be fixed."
/interview interrupted by waitress delivering icy cold beers.
IGN AU: So you're basically looking at squad tactics, weaponry…
LTC retired Hank Keirsey: Everything. Squad tactics. The way soldiers move. The way soldiers talk. The interface between infantry and tanks. How an infantry squad would call for fire. What is the basic tempo of a fight? What are the windows of opportunity that should occur within a tactical battlefield, that a good initiative would allow a leader to capitalise on? How would the AI operate? Should they defend here, there? How would someone defend an open area, a building complex? How would you breach a room? How would you kick in a door? Down to the detail of your movements as you come through the door - guy going left, guy going right. Everything.
So you sit down and you're thinking I'm going to have a bunch of guys who are completely clueless, and you listen to their questions, and they're right on the money. They've got a specific need for information and they've done a lot of research. All I can do is take them from the 99% solution, to the last 100%. Sometimes you talk to them, for example on this current game, I look at the Javelin movement, and I can see that the real Javelin doesn't go that high. But they say "Yeah, we know, but we like it like this, it looks cool".
IGN AU: That leads us to our next question - how close to reality is the game?
LTC retired Hank Keirsey: Extremely.
IGN AU: Obviously they exaggerate a lot of things to make it a better game experience though?
LTC retired Hank Keirsey: I would say it's much closer to reality than one would think. The sound of the weapons firing, the way the weapon sight looks when it comes up, the movement of the soldiers, it's all done very well. As an old soldier, when you look at a war movie you don't look at the good things you see. You look at the bad - they're all bunched up, nobody would wear a chin strap like that, he's got the wrong patch on, he's wearing his rank wrong, his medals are out of order, that didn't know what he was doing. You see every error.
So when I look at the game, and I see that the Javelin missile is flying too high, that's an error. But they know it's too high, but it's a compromise. Same with the smoke grenade - a real one takes fifteen seconds for the screen to develop, but that's too long for a gamer, their attention span is too short, they had to speed that up.
IGN AU: In what regards is it most realistic then? Does it capture the intensity and feel of a fire-fight? Or is it more over the top than what a real fire-fight is?
LTC retired Hank Keirsey: Fortunately for me, my fire-fights have been never as intense as in the game. A round fired here, a round fired back, movement, movement, round. This is probably one of those fire-fights that occur when you happen to be in that one sector of a very bad battle. Maybe only one out of every thousand soldiers has seen this kind of battle. But in COD4, you're now in one of those fire-fights.
Just a ten minute session of that would be enough for a lifetime for you to remember. These games you end up going from one extreme fire-fight to the next most extreme situation to the next most extreme situation. The realism is absolutely real if you're the one in thousand guys that ends up in that particularly bad sector, and got ambushed. Absolutely real.
IGN AU: As a former soldier that has been in combat and life-threatening situations, how do you feel about the fact that this entertainment? That they're making a game out of real life combat where people die?
LTC retired Hank Keirsey: That's a good point. A lot of WWII veterans say "I hate videogames, they shouldn't be glorifying what we did." My response to them, after I looked at the earlier COD games and saw how close the developers had got it to being accurate, I said "You don't understand sir, this is exactly what we need, because it's teaching by indirect approach what your generation had to go through". There's kids out there today who would have known nothing about WWII and are now extremely interested, are doing the reading. They come up to me and say "I studied that battle, I made my parents take me there when I went to Europe to see where it actually happened". We are basically opening a door of interest to somebody who would never normally be interested.
Likewise with the modern day combat, with what's going with our soldiers. I was sitting in a bar the other night with three girls from California talking about normal frivolous crap that people talk about. You listen to these conversations in this luxurious bar, and it just seems like they live in La La Land. They've got no concerns, no worries. They're talking about things that seem meaningless to me, and I'm just sitting as a bystander on a barstool beside them.
But when a kid plays this game, he sees what soldiers are going through right now. He gains an appreciation of what that one out of a thousand Americans that are now deployed in combat, in a rotten war, are having to experience. They don't get to choose the war, they don't get to choose the battlefield, they go where they're told. This stuff is going on right now. The weapons that are being used in this game, are the weapons that are being deployed in battle in Iraq. The ACOG sight, the holographic sight. I was just over there not too long ago - they're all the same weapons. The tricked out M4 carbines, that's exactly what's being used over there.
In a way, even though it's a game, it opens that window to see what somebody else is doing today for real. And maybe somebody will have an appreciation when the soldier gets off the plane from his time in Iraq, and instead of getting spit on like the guys did during Vietnam, he gets a thankyou from the guy at the airport.